Before I decided to immerse more than just my big toe into the vast sea of cocktail information that’s out there, I connected Vermouth with one drink only. I thought of it exclusively as the pale, dry, ingredient that people ask for in varying degrees when they order their Martinis. It’s certainly true that one of Vermouth’s major contributions is its role in the aforementioned quintessential cocktail and, to be honest, it’s not such a bad gig. It’s a bit like enjoying the fame and fortune that come from being the most important supporting actor in a much-loved TV series. But there’s a flip-side to that: you get pigeonholed and audiences can never see you as anyone other than Ethel from I Love Lucy, Fonzie from Happy Days, or Norm from Cheers. Just ask Vivian Vance, Henry Winkler, and George Wendt. Fortunately, for today’s actors, many TV series use ensemble casts where everyone shares the spotlight, and I’ve come to think that this is the perfect metaphor for the home bar. Each spirit leaves its ego at the door, no one is throwing a tantrum in their dressing room, and all the supporting players are valued for the irreplaceable contributions they make.
There are 3 basic types of Vermouth, all of which start out as wine fortified with a neutral spirit (like an unaged brandy) that has spices and botanicals added in. Today we’ll focus on dry Vermouth, the one that we’re all most familiar with because of its association with the Martini, the classic cocktail that made Ernest Hemingway’s character, Frederic Henry, “feel civilized” in a Farewell to Arms. I think that many of us can relate to this statement; of all the cocktails in the canon, the Martini is arguably the one that is most often associated with refinement and elegance. If you can sit at a bar and know how to order a martini just the way you like it, then you have certainly arrived. There are a number of tales regarding the origin of the Martini, and just as many variations in the way you can order it:
- A dry Martini uses less vermouth.
- A very dry Martini uses even less, sometimes only a quick rinse in the glass.
- A dirty Martini replaces part of the Vermouth with olive brine.
- A very dirty Martini uses even more olive brine.
- A Kangaroo replaces gin with vodka. Most people simply ask for a Vodka Martini.
- A Gibson is garnished with an onion, rather than an olive.
- A Martini with a twist is garnished with a thin lemon strip.
- A Martini “shaken, not stirred” was James Bond’s preference. Most Martinis are stirred.
The dry Vermouth that I know and love the most is Dolin Dry Vermouth de Chambery. Its lesser known siblings are Dolin Blanc and Dolin Rouge, which we’ll talk about tomorrow. To me, the flavor of the Dolin Dry is truly beautiful, with an herbal streak, a slight hint of sweetness, and something almost salty that reminds me of the seaweed salad that I order with my sushi. It’s a delicate spirit that can be enjoyed by itself well-chilled, with a splash of soda as a spritzer, or in cocktails with lighter base spirits like gin and vodka. It has a particular affinity for St. Germain, and it can also be combined with Dolin Rouge in a Vermouth Cocktail. When using it in a Martini with gin, remember that your choice of gin will make quite a difference in the drink’s final taste. Plymouth gin is the perfect introduction to a Martini if you’re just beginning to figure out what you like because of its more delicate flavor and lower alcohol content. It’s also an excellent choice if you’re a person who often feels like Martinis are just too “boozy.” I love Bluecoat gin from Philadelphia Distilling because it’s a local spirit and just because it’s a gorgeous, juicy gin that is perfectly balanced. Palmer Distilling in Manayunk (also local) makes Liberty Gin from a traditional Dutch recipe from the colonial era. I love the idea of the founding fathers enjoying a Martini or two! Norristown’s Five Saints Distilling has just released a Tuscan gin that I’m eager to try because I think it will make a very interesting Martini. There are also the more botanical gins, like Hendrick’s, Death’s Door, and The Botanist that will bring an entirely different flavor profile to your Martini. As with everything else, my advice would be to taste, taste, taste so that you can order your Martini in a bar with the confidence that comes from knowing exactly what you like. When that happens for the first time, it’s quite the moment – savor it!
Combine all the ingredients except the garnish over ice and stir with a long-handled bar spoon for 30-45 seconds until very, very cold. This is important! Strain into a chilled Martini glass (the smaller the better; no big gulps)! Garnish with the lemon twist. Enjoy!
For a dirty Martini, you’ll replace a bit of the Vermouth with olive brine, to your liking. Also change your garnish to a green olive.
*This is the recipe from the Death & Co. Modern Classic Cocktails book. It’s the best; start here and adjust according to your preferences.
One final note about Vermouth: because it’s a fortified wine, it needs to be kept refrigerated and it has a shelf life of about a month, although mine has held for longer than that in a basement fridge, relatively undisturbed. After that it’ll begin to oxidize. Martinis often don’t taste as good when you make them at home because the Vermouth you’re using has gone bad. Most Vermouth is available in half bottles which is a really smart idea.